, 2016

Over the last thirty years, Eric Dunning’s (1999) claim that ‘sport matters’ (see also Bromberger 2012; Carrington 2012) has been widely accepted in social science scholarship. This development in scholarly debates fittingly reflects modern sport’s global interconnections and social effects in the economic, cultural and political realms, which have established it as a powerful facilitator, provider and resource for an ‘array of identities’ (Maguire et al. 2002, 143). It does, however, not imply that sport should be understood as a ‘quasi autonomous [social] institution’ or a ‘kind of self-sufficient […] subsystem’, but rather as a ‘constitutive element of everyday life and popular culture’ taking place ‘within a particular social and historical setting’ (Tomlinson 2005, xiv).

There is agreement in nationalism and identity scholarship that sport constitutes a major ritual of popular culture contributing to the theoretical concept of the nation as an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1991, 6-7; see also Barrer 2007, 223). Scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds agree that sport has social, cultural and political significance in (re-)producing collective identities on a local, national, regional and global level. Historically, the study of sport and its interrelation with the ‘nation’ was pioneered by the disciplines of sociology, history and anthropology during the 1980s (see Birrell 1981; Hoberman 1984; Hargreaves 1986). Bairner (2015, 376) points out that compared to sport historians (see for example Cronin 1999) and anthropologists (see for example Váczi 2015), the extent to which sociologists of sport have contributed to our understanding of the various relationships that exist between the ‘nation’ and sport has been rather limited. This is due to the ‘tendency in the sociology of sport to take for granted such concepts as nation, nation-state, nationality, national identity and nationalism and to ignore debates about these concepts within mainstream nationalism studies’ (Bairner 2015, 375-6).

The (re-)production of identities is further enabled through ritualised sporting spectacles in international settings, by everyday consumption of nationally framed sports media and by diverse practices of fandom and spectatorship (see Hobsbawm 1992, 142-143; Frey & Eitzen 1991; Eriksen 1993, 111; Billig 1995, 119-25; Edensor 2002, 78-84; Fox 2006, 226; Bairner 2001, 1). Countless further studies illustrate the social role of sport as it relates to the nation-state or collective identities (in relation to Great Britain, see Whannel 1992; Hargreaves 1986; to Norway, Klausen 1999; Sweden, Sörlin 1995; Ireland, Cronin 1999; Canada, Kidd 1992; Jackson 1994, 1998; the Yugoslav successor states, Brentin 2013; Mills 2013; Ɖorđević 2012; France, Marks 1998; Ireland/Northern Ireland, Sugden & Bairner 1993; Spain, Váczi 2015; India, Nalapat & Parker 2005; Bangladesh, Hasan 2015; Greece, Tzanelli 2006; Hungary, Dóczi 2011; Laos, Creak 2015; South Korea, Lee & Maguire 2011; North Korea, Lee & Bairner 2009; and to the Dominican Republic, Wise 2015).

In a reference to the rise of football as a mass spectacle in interwar Europe, which has become perhaps one of the most quoted passages in the literature on sport and nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm (1992, 143) notes that ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’ and the ‘individual [a] symbol of his nation himself’. Jon Fox (2006, 226), too, highlights the characterisation of the individual, representative athlete as the ‘physical embodiment of the nation’. Other scholars invoke and echo Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ as a fruitful concept when dealing with the (re-)production of national identities within sport (Sugden & Tomlinson 1994; Guilianotti 1999; Maguire 1999; Bairner 2001). Notably, Jeremy MacClancy (1996, 2) describes sport as a ‘vehicle of identity’ that provides ‘people with a sense of difference and a way of classifying themselves and others’. He argues that sport is not merely a ‘reflection’ of society but an ‘integral part of society […] which may be used as a means of reflecting on society’ (MacClancy 1996, 4, emphasis in original).

By encompassing a myriad of social axioms, sport contributes to their reproduction (see Hoberman 1984). It is a social field in which the complexity of the ‘nation’ can be cut down to tangible symbolic entities. Following this argument, MacClancy (1996, 4) suggests that ‘sport is not intrinsically associated with a particular set of meanings or social values’ but is rather ‘an embodied practice in which meanings are generated, and whose representation and interpretation are open to negotiation and contest.’ Similarly, Sugden & Bairner (1993, 7) point out that ‘sport has developed as a significant medium, or collection of symbols, through which the individual can identify with a particular social formation, thus exaggerating sport’s capacity to become politicised.’ Summarising these authors, it becomes clear that while ‘sport’ is not political per se, its relative malleability renders it an ‘attractive’ political asset for the (re-)production of ideology (see Hoberman 1984).

It is not only through Hobsbawm’s ‘team of eleven named people’ that nationalism finds its expression in sport. Sporting events, too, can both contribute to and serve as expressions of national identity. Campos (2003) and Thompson (2006) both highlight the power of the Tour de France as a vehicle for French national identity, and Cardoza (2010) makes a similar argument about another of cycling’s Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia. Thompson claims that ‘no bicycle race – indeed, no sporting event – has been more intimately associated with French geography and the identities it has shaped than the Tour de France’ (2006, 55). He highlights competing interpretations of the race, in which annual itineraries either stress the common experiences of the French nation, or emphasise division and exclusion. Cardoza, meanwhile, argues that the inaugural Giro in 1909 ‘represented the country’s first truly national sporting event’ and notes that La Gazzetta dello Sport promoted the event by distributing twenty thousand maps of the route, which ‘not only allowed fans to visualize the progress of the riders, but also familiarized them with the geography and history of their recently unified nation-state’ (2010, 357-8). These races are intrinsically linked to particular national territories, but other authors have highlighted the relationship between national identity and the prestige associated with the hosting of international sports events. Xin Xu, for instance, argues that ‘China as a modernizing nation yearning for great power status attaches great political importance to the Beijing Olympics in terms of constructing national identity and pursuing international primacy’ (2006, 104). In relation to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Germany, Kersting (2007) notes that the event contributed to a specific German ‘sport patriotism’ that promoted tolerance, equity, multiculturalism and democracy, rather than xenophobia. Here, parallels can be drawn with France’s hosting of, and victory in, the 1998 event (Marks 1998).

Jon Fox (2006) examines the formation and (re-)production of collective national belonging during national holiday commemorations and international football competitions in the ethnically mixed Romanian town of Cluj. He argues that modern international sport fulfils the role of an arena ‘for the display of national symbols and the alignment of national allegiances’ (226). He further identifies these ‘mass rituals, laden with national symbols [as] occasions for the crystallization of national cohesion’ (Fox 2006, 218-19). Similarly, Billig (1995, 122) identifies the sports pages in daily newspapers as everyday producers of ‘feeling at home in this world of waved flags’. These viewpoints are supplemented by Hargreaves (2000), who draws heavily on the ethno-symbolist scholarship of Anthony Smith (1989). Hargreaves (2000, 12-14) argues that sport and nationalism are interrelated through their ‘anchorage in common cultural traditions’, which represent ‘highly condensed and instantly effective images of the nation [that] can be diffused to mobilise the potential nationalist constituency and to legitimate the movement externally’.

International sporting competitions have made sport a field where the ‘nation’ is articulated against the ‘pressures’ of globalisation. It ostensibly functions as a ‘protector’ of particular national identities; a space in which the ‘imagined community’ is performed, consumed and (re-)produced by society. A central question is whether sport is best understood as an instrument of ‘national expression’ and a motor of national unity – particularity against a background of the social, political, economic and cultural uncertainness of the globalised world, or instead as an ideal socio-cultural institution with which to promote a multicultural and unifying globalisation process (see Miller et al. 2001; Hargreaves 2002; Bernstein and Blain 2003; Rowe 2003, 2006).

Even the most internationalised sport events such as the Olympic Games, promoting solidarity, peace and understanding between nations, find themselves ‘trapped’ within the dichotomy of ‘ritual internationalism’ and ‘emotional nationalism’. In his article on ‘sport and the repudiation of the global’, Rowe (2003, 281) states that ‘the spectacular instances of global mega-media sports […] may be constitutively unsuited to carriage of the project of globalization in its fullest sense’ (see also Bairner 2001). Due to its deep dependence on the ‘production of difference’ (Rowe 2003, 282), he argues that international sport’s ‘fundamental reliance on localized, nationally inflected forms of identity’ offers ‘resources for the mobilization of conscious and unconscious anti-globalization perspectives’ (Rowe 2003, 291-2). Although sport is ‘increasingly transnational in its institutional structure’, its structure of meaning and affect are ‘resolutely international’ (Rowe 2006, 431, emphasis in original), deriving from national, regional or local identities. Rowe argues that ‘global sport derives its energy and appeal from the existence – or, if necessary, the manufacture and accentuation – of difference, rather than cosmopolitan sophistication’ (2006, 431-2).

When put in the context of international competition, Bairner (2005, 92), too, argues that national representative sport represents ‘one of the easiest and most passionate ways of underlining one’s sense of national identity, one’s nationality or both in the modern era’. There is a growing scholarly recognition that the social field of sport has remained one of the few ‘legitimate arena[s] in which national flags can be raised and other patriotic rituals exercised’ without being automatically stigmatised as expressions of nationalist sentiments (Bernstein & Blain 2003, 13).

In times of crisis and conflict, the cultural domain of sport often becomes a highly politicised terrain. Governments co-opt sport to ‘enhance prestige, secure legitimacy, compensate for deficiencies in other areas of life [or] pursue international rivalry by peaceful means’ (Hargreaves 1992, 128), particularly in support of processes of nation- and state-building. Sport provides governments with an array of powerful and distinctive cultural symbols to promote national uniqueness on an international stage. John Hoberman (1993, 16) describes this ‘sportive nationalism’ as the ‘ambition to see a nation’s athlete excel in the international arena [which] may be promoted by a political elite or […] may be felt by many citizens without the promptings of national leaders’. Sportive nationalism appears to foster a purely emotional and ‘passionate nationalism’, transcending political, social and ideological boundaries. It has received considerable academic attention (Hoberman 1993; Houlihan 1997; Cronin 1999; Bairner 2001), often emphasised as an ambiguous social phenomenon due to its capacity to legitimise and undermine political authority at the same time (see Cronin 1999, 55-6).

Maguire (2002, 182) points out that sport seems to ‘move us emotionally’ on a large scale (see also Allison 2000, 345); a hard-to-grasp concept, which is nonetheless often portrayed as the cause for irrational, inexplicable, or even socially condemnable actions and reactions by individuals or groups. Despite their ‘non-tangible’ character, social scientists have identified ‘emotions’ as a facilitator able to spark dissent, mobilisation and social change (see Goodwin et al. 2001; Flam & King 2005; Ismer 2011). Building on Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ idea, Rudolf Speth (1999; cited in Ismer 2011, 551) points out the need for staged rituals, such as commemorations, parades and celebrations, in the process of nation-building and identity formation. These are significant practices, which collectives need in order to ‘emotionally experience’ their ‘imagined community’ (Speth 1999).

Emile Durkheim’s (1995 [1912]) seminal work in The elementary forms of the religious life ostensibly focused on collective rituals of Australian aboriginals and their functions in evoking ‘collective effervescence’. As pointed out by Birell (1981, 354-5; see also Ismer 2011), Durkheim’s research is, however, also well suited to the analysis of sport. Modern sport’s historical roots display numerous characteristics of religious rituals – if not in meaning, then in form – and furthermore exhibit the ability to encompass the individual athlete and the collective audience into an expression of mutually beneficial unification (see Birell 1981). For Durkheim (1995 [1912]), the essence of the ritualistic experience is the power of the event to create collective emotional awareness and a feeling of togetherness. Athletes wearing the national kit and spectators collectively dressed in national colours, (Rothenbuhler 1998, 79-81) engage in a ritualistic performance of national unity experienced through a totalising ‘sporting experience’ (Rinehart 1998, 6). These states of consciousness create a communal and collective sentiment, fostering feelings of in-group togetherness, social cohesion and solidarity. Symbols and rituals create a feeling of collective belonging and solidarity within groups and distinguish them from others (see Kertzer 1988, 1-15): ‘Through the choreographed exhibition and collective performance of national symbols those in attendance are united in the transitory awareness of heightened national cohesion’ (Fox & Miller-Idriss 2008, 545). David Kertzer (1988, 88-9) points out that the increased ‘vividness of the symbolism’ during these experienced rituals establishes them as more ‘memorable and [their] effects longer-lasting’, conserving the collectively shared emotional experiences.

Through participation in symbolic events, individuals narrate and (re-)construct a relationship based on shared values, norms and expectations. As locations where symbolic representations of togetherness (e.g. national anthems, flags and emblems, fans’ chants, songs, banners and uniform clothing) are displayed, sport arenas are a social field where a cohesive relation between the ‘nation’ and its ‘people’ is constructed (Cerulo 1995, 15-17). Edensor (2002, 79) identifies the ‘performances of national identity on the sporting field’ as an expression of national qualities with an impact extending far beyond the sporting arena itself.

‘Sports fans are [frequently] labelled as manifestations of national character’, while the ‘performances in stadia of fans, their use of music, the clothes they wear and the flags they wave, their responses to sporting action, defeat and victory’ (Edensor 2002, 81) signify what are believed to be identifiable national characteristics. By ‘tapping into, encouraging, and amplifying collective identification and emotion’ (Rowe 2010, 356), sport draws spectators and television viewers into a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson 1991, 7), ‘which identifies them as part of a mass alongside their compatriots within a non-hierarchical community attentively regarding the performance of those “plenipotentiaries” competing on the nation’s behalf’ (Barrer 2007, 224). The power of sport to inspire such identification should not be overlooked in the study of nationalism.